[Reading Time: 6-8 minutes]
This review is free of any major plot spoilers, though I do discuss aspects of the show you may want to experience for yourself if you’ve not seen it.
“This city’s afraid of me. I’ve seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters, and the gutters are full of blood. And when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up around their waists. And all the whores and politicians will look up and shout, ‘Save us.’ And I’ll whisper, ‘No.’ Now the whole world stands on the brink, staring down into bloody hell. All those liberals, and intellectuals, and smooth talkers, and all of a sudden nobody can think of anything to say. Beneath me, this awful city: It screams like an abattoir full of retarded children. And the night reeks of fornication and bad consciences.”
If you heard someone give that speech in real life, you would either be walking past a street preacher who’s had a little too much to drink, or you’re probably in a cult.
The original Watchmen examined the consequences that superheroes would have on society, and vice versa. It posited that anyone dumb enough to literally run around in a mask and cape to fight crime HAS to be suffering from some sort of personality disorder.
That speech at the beginning is from the mostly-protagonist Rorschach from the film Watchmen (yes I know and love the graphic novel; I was quoting the movie). Easily my favorite character from the series. But he’s clearly… well, today we would see those words as possibly belonging to a fringe alt-right website whose members have possible militant intent. But the show isn’t directly about the alt-right, or Trump, or any other low-hanging fruit for making a statement about the current administration.
HBO’s Watchmen is more about a literal race war than the metaphorical one you hear about on conservative talk radio. But also about a police force with stricter gun control and force continuum than any liberal American politician has managed to dream up.
This is a world where the good guys AND the bad guys wear masks. Where due process isn’t given to everyone. America and Russia are probably getting along much better than they are in the real world. We’ve had the same president for 30 years. Vietnam has US statehood for some reason. Zeppelins still exist for some reason. Some people believe the interdimensional squids occasionally falling from the sky are part of a government conspiracy. Based on what we know about the series’ history with large-scale attacks from otherworldly beings being used as actual honest-to-god “fake news” to prevent a global nuclear war… I’m inclined to agree.
Callbacks to the originals are abound. The use of loud, upbeat music during very dark story moments. The dripping of a single drop of blood down onto a badge no longer pinned. As well as [hover to reveal spoiler].
“Cop carcass on the highway last night. Soon the accumulated black filth will be hosed away, and the streets of Tulsa will turn into extended gutters, overflowing with liberal tears. Soon all the whores and race traitors will shout ‘Save us!’ And we will whisper, ‘No.’ We are the Seventh Kavalry. We are no one. We are everyone. We are invisible. And we will never compromise. Do not stand between us and our mission, or there will be more dead cops. There are so many deserving of retribution, and there is so little time. And that time is near.”
That’s a quote from the show. It is unmistakably Rorschach, but it’s… very much how you might see a modern terrorist organization communicate with the police and media in 2019. It’s drama, sure, but it’s also practical in addition to the preaching. They want the police to back off their mission… which probably doesn’t have to do with lettuce but I don’t think we can be certain about that yet.
And the police have their own mysteries. First, they’re in league with superhero vigilantes who work outside the law. Or… possibly fully within the law. I’m not a practicing lawyer in their alternate universe, nor any. Those deemed “terrorists” (by whose standards exactly?) seemingly have no rights while in police custody, just like in US law (ha, gottem). But in their world, potential white supremacists are taken as seriously by their FBI as potential Islamic terrorists are by ours.
The police themselves wear masks. Yellow ski masks are just part of their working uniform. The police being masked stood out to me as the most jarring difference between our world and theirs. It’s one thing to imagine caped crusaders, or some terrorist organization you’d never even heard of 15 minutes ago before this show came on… but our world has police. Our local city cops existing in a world where they have to completely keep their identities secret to the public for their own safety… this lies in some sort of “uncanny valley” of parallel timeline storytelling. And I promise I mean that in a good way.
The show doesn’t throw you into the deep end and overwhelm you with a circus of puzzling information, though. As the source material opened with (and returned to throughout) regular cops doing their job and talking about it, HBO’s Watchmen series begins with an episode that is certainly humanizing. I might be itching to gush about the nerdy sci-fi or allusions to The Matrix attire in our protagonist’s costume… but the show is clearly going to also be about real people and their real lives. Character arcs will happen in ways that feel comfortable and human, while large portions of the mystery won’t be answered by the end of the scene, or even the episode. Which makes sense, given that show creator Damon Lindelof also co-created Lost.
While you’re not desperately treading water by any means (I’m reusing the metaphor from the previous paragraph), you are definitely wading deeper, ever-so-slowly until you realize the waterline is up to your chin and you suddenly feel something strange touching your feet. The show doesn’t give you a clear “ruleset” from the beginning that allows you to gauge in an obvious way what is similar and different in our universe and theirs. Lore, backstory, and direct exposition are handed out sparingly. The pacing treats you like an intelligent adult who is paying attention, but intentionally leaves you wondering (though one’s “wondering” can be another’s “confused”). You don’t realize until the end that you didn’t understand a single thing in the scene with the old naked white guy and his servant, where he gets served a horseshoe to cut his anniversary cake. You’re just watching the whole thing intently, waiting for the part that explains what exactly is going on and how this character and strange setting relate to the rest of the show… but it never comes. The show moves on and intentionally never explains itself.
Angela Abar, a nighttime vigilante known as Sister Night and played by Regina King, is a badass bitch and one hell of a protagonist.